East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Never gonna be the same

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No, not the minor hit for Scottish band Danny Wilson.
I was reading an article on the plight of the poor fiction writer, relentless purveyor of narratives for the entertainment and the edification of the hoi polloi. You see, not only your garden variety fiction writer is locked up in their house, with the stress and anxiety of seeing the system slowly trying to cope with a change that was expected but ignored, and often failing in the attempt. Not only the writer has to deal with insomnia, increasing alienation, the pneumatic void of most social media contents and the bills that keep piling up as the bank account dwindles. No, the fiction writer has to deal with the fact that our world and our society are changing, and what the writer writes is no longer relevant and connected with our present.

No, but… really?

I am reading a lot of science fiction, in these days, some fantasy and horror, and crime, but also books of history and very old novels (the belle epoque capers of Lupin, for instance). And as far as writing goes, I am writing a story set in 1938, I’m working on a novel set in the neolithic, and on an essay on turn of the (20th) century explorers and travellers.
Our shifting situation is robing me of my sleep, but if I have a hard time writing these days is for the lack of sleep and worries of an economic nature, not for the lack of ideas.

As writers of imaginative fiction, we have always known that it was never going to be the same.
Science fiction deals with the idea that our children will have different problems than our own, and fantasy and horror deal with such central issues of our lives – good and evil, belief, monsters – that they will never fai to be “relevant”. Granted, you have probably to go a little beyond the “tits & carnage” level of fantasy fiction, but it’s not that hard. You can even leave the tits and carnage in, as long as you respect yourself and your readers.

Two days ago a writer I follow asked the readers of his mailing list to try, as an exercise, to see what we are going through as a source of opportunities.
This is not cynical, or callous per se – because seeing the opportunities helps us stay alive.
It becomes cynical, I believe, if I look at the world in its current state and I ask myself, “how can I use this to promote my brand?”
And I see people doing just that. And I am convinced that when you start thinking in brands and platforms, you may start to lose sight of people.

So, asking myself, “how is this deadly mess an opportunity?”, my answer is, this is an opportunity because I will be able to play my old game but – maybe, just maybe – for a different audience.
It will no longer be necessary for publishers to go “OK, this is SF but also a metaphor of our current times…” or some other lame self-justification.
It’s an opportunity because maybe, just maybe, people will look with different eyes at the stories I write, and will stop thinking only stories about the sexual politics of office life are “realistic” and “relevant”.

I feel a great weariness at all the people that keep posting on their socials that they are watching old zombie movies, or Mad Max and all of his (often Italian) clones, or movies about viruses, nuclear holocausts and the collapse of civilization.
But thinking about it, this weariness comes from the fact that I saw all those movies, many times, usually during hot summer nights, eating ice cream.
For a large sector of the public, this is their first time actually watching Dawn of the Dead, or The Road Warrior, or Doomsday, the first time they actually feel something other than ennui and a sense of superiority watching those flicks. Now it’s more like “Please God let it be different!”
For the first time, those movies are relevant to a huge section of the public, and as usual, we that were there before feel a certain sense of irritation at the newbies’ vocal enthusiasm.

Will these new converts be interested in more imaginative fiction when the dust settles? Will they accept stories with monsters, and set in the future, as “relevant”?
I do not know. Many of them probably wish for this thing we are going through to end, just like a movie, with the titles rolling and the lights going up in the cinema. How could we blame such hopes, as unrealistic as they are? We’re all there.
Much will depend on the quality of the imaginative fiction we will offer them – and herein is the opportunity I was talking of.
It’s a risk, but writing stories always comes with the attached risk of being ignored, of missing the expectations and tastes of the majority.
But it’s still better, and more hones, than just see everything in terms of brand and platform.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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